The Last Jump: Chapter 66
Foy, Belgium – December 20, 1944
“Duty is ours; consequences are God’s.”
Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, (1824 – 1863)
At dawn on 19 December, General der Panzertruppen Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel’s XLVII Panzer Corps, having clawed its way out of the deep ravines and steep river valleys, was finally in open tank country. Three German divisions were now bearing down on Bastogne. The road hub town should have been his on the second day but the persistent Americans bravely resisted even when there was no hope of victory. They frustrated him, delayed his timetable and thwarted his plans. Just as he was poised to finally take Bastogne, the Americans pushed out probing forces on the roads leading into the city. Skirmishes ensued. Now the Germans would waste even more time dealing with these tenacious Americans, which now included paratroopers.
Manteuffel’s 2nd Panzer Division had run into determined resistance at Noville while trying to approach Bastogne on the N-15 Highway. A small American force of paratroopers and armored infantry stubbornly held the village. The German Panzers outgunned the American Sherman tanks but not the American tank destroyers. The M36 with its .90-millimeter gun and the M18 Hellcat with its .76-millimeter long-barrel high-velocity gun made the Panzers pay dearly. On 19 December, outside Noville, thirty-two German tanks were destroyed. Lieutenant Colonel James L. LaPrade, who took command when Major William R. Desobry was critically wounded and evacuated, asked for permission to withdraw and awaited orders.
These were the sounds of battle the two isolated American soldiers heard from the fog-shrouded stone farmhouse, which remained in a clingy mist for the rest of the day. As the temperature dropped below freezing, both soldiers wrapped themselves in blankets against the cold. The fog would occasionally lift like a curtain rising from a stage, offering some brief moments of vision before crashing back down and smothering everything in a cloak of invisibility. In those brief moments of clarity the two men scanned all points of the compass. All that was discernible were the heaps of high haystacks spread across the rich farmland.
The Americans took turns trying to snatch some sleep. The constant noise of a battle raging around Noville served to deny them much needed rest. As both soldiers struggled with brief, fitful naps, it snowed through the night.
Shortly after dawn, on 20 December, the two soldiers were shaken by the sounds of .88-millimeter rounds smashing into Noville. The orange glow, acrid smell of gunpowder and smoke from burning vehicles served to remind them that the battle was still being fiercely contested.
Noises of tracked vehicles reverberated through the bowl-shaped plain. Small arms and cannon fire from the direction of Noville went on all day long. From time to time voices could be heard in the distance and they were always German voices. It was a miracle that they had not yet been discovered by enemy forces which flowed around them heading toward Foy and Bastogne.
It was shortly after 0800 hours when Foy again came under attack. The battle raged for hours while the fight for Noville was still underway. With enemy forces in their front and rear as well as surging around them they felt safer remaining in the farmhouse tucked into an undulation in the terrain and shrouded in the dense fog.
Both men heard the sound at the same time. It was an American jeep pulling up in the back. The driver brought the jeep to a halt. The two Americans stepped out of the back door; weapons trained on the four occupants.
“Hey, Mac. What outfit?” The jeep driver asked.
Lincoln circled the jeep and seemed to be studying it. The driver peered at him condescendingly. The other passengers sat quietly, hands on weapons.
“Who are you?” Kilroy finally asked.
“We’re from the Twenty-eighth Division. We’re heading for Bastogne.”
“So is everybody else, it seems.”
Lincoln came completely around the jeep and whispered, “They’re stinking Krauts.”
“You think?” he answered out loud and raised his weapon. “Easy everybody. Just empty your pockets. No sudden moves.” Lincoln moved to one side of the jeep.
The driver was getting nervous. The other men began reaching into their pockets. One soldier pulled out some pound notes and dollars.
“Jeez, you’re Krauts! Lincoln, tie them up!”
Suddenly one of the soldiers in the rear reached for his rifle. The two Americans reacted immediately. Both Thompsons roared and in less than three seconds the four German infiltrators were sprawled out in the blood-drenched jeep.
The two GIs stood for a moment, inhaling the acrid smell of cordite and the sweet smell of blood. They were both breathing hard. “How did you know, Lincoln?”
“Well, the markings on the jeep are all wrong. Also, we were ordered not to use hooded headlights. Either lights full on or completely off. Americans would know that.” Lincoln smiled; satisfied he contributed with information only a driver would know. “How about you?”
“They were carrying pound notes and dollars. GIs only carry invasion money.”“Oh, these boys were screwed. I wonder what the hell they were up to?”
Before Lincoln received an answer, the sounds of motors and tracks became audible from the direction of the main highway. The engine noises became louder. They looked at each other.
“Sounds like our vehicles to me.”
“You ought to know, Lincoln. Let’s hope to God you’re right.”
The two men jumped into the halftrack. Lincoln backed it out of its hideout through the wall of hay bales. One bale fell into the back compartment. The halftrack pushed the stricken jeep aside and cleared the farmhouse. Lincoln proceeded slowly toward the sound of engines he prayed were American.
The deep voice pierced the fog. “Halt. Identify yourself. What’s the password?”
The paratrooper jumped out of the back and approached the voice. “Corporal Kilroy. Easy Company, Five-oh-Sink.” He used the nickname of his regiment to convince his challengers he was an American soldier.
A group of ragged, dirty paratroopers came out of the fog and surrounded them with weapons at the ready. “Yeah, how do we know you’re for real and not lousy Krauts?”
They closed in, boots crunching the snow. Kilroy pointed to Lincoln who was standing in the cab. “Do the Krauts have any of these?”
There was some nervous laughter as the group of men recognized Lincoln as a colored soldier. They put up their weapons. “Nah, I guess not. Where you guys heading?”
A major walked into the small circle. “I’m Major Harwick. I’m in command.”
“Colonel LaPrade?” Kilroy asked. LaPrade was well known in the regiment.
“Dead,” he said without emotion. “This convoy is bogged down here right now. If this fog lifts we’re dog meat. Where did you soldiers come from? What can you tell me?”
“We got separated yesterday while on a supply run. Lincoln and me have been holed up in a farmhouse waiting for this fog to lift. We just took out four Krauts in a jeep disguised as GIs.”
The officer barely acknowledged the colored trooper. “We’re conducting a fighting retreat from Noville. As soon as Third Battalion takes Foy we’ll be moving forward again. You’re welcome to join us.”
“You look like sitting ducks out here, Major.” The convoy was not moving, the grumbling engines idling anxiously in the misty fog.
“We have about thirty vehicles in this column. Most of them have wounded aboard. We lack maneuverability and we’re low on able-bodied infantry. The few fighting tanks we have are up front. We’re counting on them to kick the door open to get us into Foy.”
“Wide open. It’s like a wagon train in the old west except I can’t circle them. We’re road bound.” The major nodded at the halftrack. “Since you’re still mobile, we can use the extra firepower to protect our flanks.”
“We can do that.”
Just then small arms fire started peppering the column from the western flank. Some of the paratroopers returned fire even though they could not see far into the mist. The fire became more intense. It sounded like a large force of infantry was pressuring the flank.
The major pointed toward the gunfire. “There’s a creek, some low ground and then a ridge. They probably came over the ridge. Can you push them back? Keep them off us?”
“Sure thing. Let’s go Linc.”
“Be careful son. There’s a Panther tank roaming loose out here somewhere and I’m sure it wants to get a crack at this column.”
Lincoln shifted gears and pushed the halftrack through a break in the column while Kilroy strapped himself into the quad-fifty mount. “Linc, let’s go straight at them until we see muzzle flashes and then turn right and we’ll sweep the line. Stay low.”
The fire began to plink off the sides of the halftrack’s half-inch armor plate. Kilroy grabbed the handlebar grips on the post between his knees. He knew the powered turret could sweep 180 degrees in three seconds. He waited for Lincoln to make the turn.
He saw the flashes and heard the crack of bullets whizzing by his head. Lincoln made the turn, ducked down and the trooper opened up with the quad-fifty. The noise was ear shattering as brilliant flashes of tracers shot off into the blanket of fog. The entire vehicle rocked and vibrated violently to the recoil. He struggled to keep the .50-caliber M2 machine guns on target while he continued to sweep back and forth. The screams and groans from behind the misty fog told him he was on target. The armor-piercing rounds severed limbs, split heads wide open and tore bodies in half. Flesh, bone and blood along with bits and pieces of uniform flew wildly in all directions. He continued to pour relentless fire onto the defenseless German infantrymen who were caught out in the open and quickly sliced to pieces by the withering fire of the Meat Chopper.
Lincoln reversed course and they swept the line again with a fusillade of bullets while heading back in the opposite direction. The shooting stopped when they ran out of ammo. Through a thinning fog they saw the carnage the armor-piercing rounds caused. It was once a reinforced platoon of Panzergrenadiers but now the body parts of their dead and wounded were spread all over the field on both sides of the shallow creek. The few who survived were retreating back up to the ridge. For the moment this flank would remain secure.
Lincoln drove the halftrack back to the convoy. There was still intense fighting toward the front but the column began to creep forward slowly. Paratroopers were fanning out to the right and left to help dislodge the German defenders and find a way into Foy. As they pushed forward, the flanks became less protected. Kilroy busied himself replacing the four empty canister magazines on the quad–fifty with the last four full ones. Lincoln took the M1903 Springfield rifle and extra clips of ammo up in the front seat.
They worked in near silence save for the sounds of metal clicking on metal and the gunfire all around them. Then they proceeded to patrol first one side of the convoy then the other. The tracks of the vehicle made it easy for them to navigate the snow-bound terrain just off the macadam highway. On their first trip around the rear of the column they saw massive explosions in Noville. Before evacuating the town, the engineers of the 10th Armored Division set charges in the church basement. In one shot they denied the Germans the use of the steeple observation post and the main road through town.
Each time the halftrack came around the west side of the convoy, the side with the wooded ridge, they heard the squeaking bogey wheels of the elusive Panther tank. But the fog cloaked both forces. If the Germans could delay the convoy until the fog lifted, they could stand off at a distance and pick off the vehicles with deadly cannon fire. They continued to search for the column by launching their ghostly flares.
Kilroy was taking fragmentation grenades from the wooden box and passing some to Lincoln when two German scout cars came racing through the eerie light of the flares hanging in the fog. They were running parallel to the road. They began to pour small arms fires into the column while on the move. Kilroy threw two grenades as far as he could and the explosion of shrapnel stopped one of the scout cars. Lincoln emptied a clip from his Thompson into the same vehicle. Kilroy had just strapped himself into the quad-fifty when the second scout car came roaring back. The force of the .50-caliber volley was so powerful the scout car flipped end over end and crashed in a pile of junk and debris. A few walking-wounded paratroopers from the column scrambled out and finished off the survivors.
The column continued to creep toward Foy. The halftrack prowled the flanks in search of the enemy and, like an outrider in a cattle drive, stewarded the convoy toward its destination. Finally, they took up a position behind the last vehicle in the column. They would be in Foy in another twenty minutes if they kept up the pace. Suddenly, they heard the sounds of squeaking bogey wheels and tank treads slapping through the creek.
“Shut her down, Linc.”
Lincoln turned off the engine so they could hear. A slight breeze came up and the fog began to dissipate.
“No, not now,” the paratrooper whispered into the air.
“What do we do if they spot us?”
“Run like hell. Provide a diversion. Draw them away from the column.”
“Don’t sound like a good plan to me.”
“We can’t outfight him. We’ll have to out maneuver and outrun him! You can drive rings around him, Linc. He’ll never touch us!”
“I suppose.” Lincoln popped up in the driver’s seat. “Shit. Right there.” He was pointing to a Mark V Panther coming down the hill from the wooded ridgeline. He fired up the engine.
“Let’s haul ass,” Kilroy yelled as he rotated the four .50-caliber machine guns toward the tank. “This ought to get their attention!”
He fired the four synchronized machine guns and the tracers created streaks of light in the smothering haze. Sparks flew off the tank’s glacis plate and turret as the armor-piercing rounds ricocheted off of the thick body armor with sharp metallic clangs. The fog swirled as he poured hundreds of rounds at the tank in just a few seconds. The tank turret swerved toward them. Small arms fire began to hit the halftrack. “He’s got infantry with him!” yelled Kilroy.
“Stop firing,” Lincoln yelled as he punched the gas and the vehicle took off in the opposite direction from the convoy. “They’re tracking back on your tracers!”
Kilroy let off the triggers and Lincoln changed direction. The tank fired its main gun. The round landed where the halftrack would have been had Lincoln not changed course. “You’re right, damn it! They can’t see shit either! He back-tracked our tracers!”
Lincoln guided the vehicle back down the road as the fog settled back in. The tank lost contact with the halftrack and began to move toward the convoy. It opened fire with its main gun again, this time aiming at the convoy.
“C’mon Linc, we gotta distract him.” he yelled as he unbuckled himself from the quad mount to get grenades.
Lincoln turned their vehicle to the sound of the cannon fire. He was moving fast through the translucent curtain of fog. Too fast! Suddenly the halftrack came over a rise in the terrain and down into a deep depression. The body of the huge tank loomed directly before him. Lincoln yanked the wheel sharply and punched the gas hard to avoid colliding with the tank. The centrifugal force of the sudden turn sent the paratrooper flying out of the rear compartment and onto the ground. His helmet came flying off as he tumbled along the snowy hardscrabble ground. He wound up sprawled out on all fours without a weapon. The halftrack sped away and disappeared into the gloom.
“Lincoln, come back you bastard,” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Before he could rise up from the ground, two Panzergrenadiers had him by the arms and were dragging him to the front of the tank. The turret on the panther popped open and a German officer began barking orders. Before he knew it, he was standing in front of the muzzle of the tank’s .75-millimeter high-velocity long-barreled cannon.
“Dirty, yellow-bellied bastard,” he mumbled to himself. He looked up at the muzzle aimed directly at him. At least it will be quick and I won’t become a prisoner.
The tank engine shut down and the officer spoke loudly in stilted but passable English. “Ah, paratrooper I see. Screaming Eagle.”
One of the Panzergrenadiers yanked off his dog tags and read his name to the tank commander in stilted English. “Corporal John Kilroy.”
“Ah, yes. Corporal Kilroy. How many of your comrades in Bastogne?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
The two soldiers holding his arms stepped away and motioned for him to place his hands on his head. He complied. They quickly stripped him of his grenades and sidearm. “What outfit are you from?” The words came out spontaneously and were the product of his nervousness.
“Ah, you’ll find out soon enough, Corporal. We are the Second Panzer Division and we plan to spend the night in Bastogne.”
“Good luck with that!”
The German officer let out a brief hearty laugh. “So cocky, you American paratroopers. You devils in baggy pants. Not so tough now, ah?”
Kilroy stared at the gun. His heart was racing with fear. “Let’s get this over with.”
The officer’s face contorted in confusion. Then his eyebrows lifted in understanding. “Ah, you think I mean to kill you with my main gun? No, no. We are not the SS. And besides, I would not waste an amour piercing round on you.” He let out another brief grunting laugh. “No, you will be a guest of the Third Reich until we win the War.”
“Sounds like a life sentence to me,” he mumbled under his breath.
They heard the sound of the screaming truck engine simultaneously. It seemed to reverberate off the side of the massive tank. All eyes turned toward the high-pitched sound of a revving motor as it became louder and louder. Everyone stared in horror as the fog lit up in a curtain of bright flame and the halftrack, engine roaring, came flying over the embankment at great speed. The bale of hay was alight in the rear compartment and the open gas cans further fueled the fire. The driverless halftrack went airborne and came back to earth with a loud crash as its nose buried itself at the base of the tank’s tread. The momentum pushed the halftrack over on its back spilling the burning hay and gasoline over the body of the tank. The commander barely got the hatch closed before a blanket of flames spread across the turret and deck of the tank.
Kilroy ducked to the ground at the appearance of the flaming halftrack. The Germans stood motionless, stunned by the sudden appearance of the driverless vehicle. The tank backed away, sending the overturned halftrack crashing to the ground.
Suddenly, one of the guards spun down with a bullet in the head, the shot muffled by the sounds of the tank’s engine. Before the other Panzergrenadier could react, he too was cut down.
The tank continued to move in reverse trying in vain to douse the flames spreading on its hull. As the flaming liquid began pouring into the interior through the view slits, the crew tried to abandon the tank. The top hatch flipped open. The first one out, the commander, was shot in the chest. He slumped back into the turret. The backdrop of the flames made the targets clearly visible. As the next crewman climbed out, he was silhouetted in the light and shot. The ammunition began cooking off and explosions ripped the tank apart from the inside.
The young paratrooper lay frozen, hugging the ground, when he heard footsteps crunching on the frozen snow. He turned around to see Lincoln Abraham walking slowly toward him. He had the M1903 Springfield sniper rifle in his arms and the Thompson slung over his shoulder.
“What the hell took you so long?” he mockingly asked.
Lincoln helped his buddy off the ground and handed him the Thompson. “I couldn’t find a match.” Lincoln had a bloodstained field dressing on his forearm.
“What happened to your arm?”
“Bullet clean through. No broken bone,” Lincoln answered.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
“Back home in Michigan. I hunted a lot.”
The paratrooper retrieved his helmet and dog tags from the body of a fallen German. They were both killed with headshots. “You’re good!”
“It’s got a scope. Could hardly miss at this distance.”
They walked toward the road in silence for a few moments. Finally the relieved paratrooper put his hand on the driver’s shoulder. “Thanks for coming back for me.”
Lincoln kept walking, head down, and rifle ready. “You’re welcome, man. You would have done the same.”
“I know. But I wasn’t sure you would.”
They walked until they found the road in the mist and followed it toward Foy. It was getting dark and there was still fighting up ahead. The tracks in the snow led off to the right. The convoy must have taken a slight detour. The two men followed the tracks around the village of Foy to its northwest side. An officer appeared out of the fog.
“Is that you, Kilroy?” It was Captain Frank West.
“Yes it is, Captain!”
West grabbed his shoulders. “Am I glad to see you, son. Major Harwick told us a paratrooper and colored driver were providing rear guard for the convoy in an M16 halftrack. I figured it must have been you and the driver who went back for the supplies.”
“Yup. We lost the halftrack. Sorry.”
“Major Harwick told me how you shot up an enemy patrol and some flakwagons to allow the convoy to get through. Good work, men. We need to write you up for a medal.”
“This scrawny little driver is PFC Lincoln Abraham. He was with me all the way. If you’re going to recommend medals, he damn well earned one too, sir.”
“Thanks, son. I’d be glad to write both of you up. What happened to the halftrack?”
“Lincoln smashed it into the Panther. Saved my ass and the convoy.”
West looked at Lincoln who responded. “It was a team job. We both did what we had to do.” He smiled. “We didn’t feel like hiding in cellars and we weren’t being taken prisoner. Right, Kilroy?”
The paratrooper nodded. “Did the convoy make it through?”
“Most of it,” West replied. “We salvaged most of the vehicles and about half of the four hundred men from Team Desobry and two thirds of the six hundred paratroopers made it back. Also, fifty wounded were taken to Bastogne.”
“Whew! Pretty stiff price, Captain. Was it worth it?”
“It’s never worth it, son. Not one American soldier is worth it.” West paused, letting his words sink in. “But if you mean was their sacrifice meaningful, I would tell you it most certainly was. Two battalions held up an elite armored division for two days. That’s time the Krauts can never make up and time we needed to dig in.” West put a hand on each of their shoulders. “We’re going to stop the Krauts right here. They’ll never take Bastogne. Their big counteroffensive will fail. And when history tells the story, I wouldn’t be surprised if the battle for Bastogne was won because of the battle for Noville!” He stepped back. “Their sacrifice will not be in vain and your contribution will not go unnoticed.”
West looked at Lincoln and pulled a pencil and small pad from his breast pocket. “Tell me what happened out there tonight.”